Zookeeper and Animal Trainer

Zookeeper and Animal Trainer

LisaAnnOKane

Tampa, FL

Female, 32

During my zookeeping and environmental education career, I have interacted and worked with a variety of animals, including brown bears, wolverines, red foxes, moose, camels, mountain goats, dolphins, sea lions, raccoons, porcupines, snakes, raptors and ravens. I am also a young adult author, and my debut novel ESSENCE was released in June 2014 by Strange Chemistry Books. Ask me anything!

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Last Answer on September 18, 2015

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Can lions or tigers be domesticated? I've seen footage of people keeping them as pets - sweet as they seem, couldn't those animals snap at any minute?

Asked by C-Moz72 almost 5 years ago

Hi C-Moz, you've hit the nail on the head. I highly discourage people from keeping any exotic animals as pets, but I PASSIONATELY discourage people from keeping big cats as pets. Illegal pet trade and animal welfare issues aside, domestication is a process that takes hundreds--if not thousands--of years of selective breeding. In order for an animal to be truly "domesticated," its natural instinct to fear humans must be completely bred out. (See my answer for the "dogs vs. wolves" question on this page for more info about how domestication works.) That's not to say a wild lion or tiger CAN'T be trained to safely--and sometimes affectionately--interact with a human. This happens frequently in zoos and wildlife rehabilitation centers all across the country. The difference is that these animals are so powerful, instinctual and unpredictable that I believe they should only be trained by knowledgeable animal care professionals. Professionals are also WAY better equipped to deal with the enrichment and animal care issues that come up with these animals. Invariably, many of these so-called "pets" end up dumped in shelters or euthanized, and many don't get nearly the exercise or care they need. (See my answer to the "animals not commonly kept as pets" question on this page for more information about this.) Again, I'm not claiming the care of a lion or tiger by a private individual is IMPOSSIBLE; I'm sure many people keep big cats without incident. I just know that I personally wouldn't even feel comfortable keeping a big cat as a pet, and I AM an animal care professional. Better safe than sorry, you know?

Are a lot of people in your line of work vegetarian/vegan, given that they work so closely with animals day in and day out?

Asked by m0ng00se almost 5 years ago

Awesome question! There are definitely some, but I'm actually surprised there aren't more. Instead, it seems like many of the zookeepers I've worked with have grown this bizarre tolerance to all the gross raw meat and nastiness they have to handle on a daily basis. Many can even take a fecal sample and then roll right into eating a hamburger. (After hand-washing, of course!) The one exception to this is marine mammal trainers. They handle so much raw fish that most of the ones I know gag at even the thought of sushi!

How many animals are there in a typical zoo, and how many people are needed to take care of a zoo this size?

Asked by Royce almost 5 years ago

I wish there were a simple answer for this question, but there is so much variation between zoos that it's nearly impossible to make a generalization. In terms of staffing, it is also important to take into account what kind of animals each facility has. (Two elephants require way more trainers than 10 turtles, for instance.) Off the top of my head, I know that the San Diego Zoo (a very big and impressive facility) has more than 4,000 animals, but the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago has more than 32,500. Many of the Aquarium's animals are tiny invertebrates and fish, so the number doesn't tell you nearly as much as you would initially think. Using specific examples from my background, I have independently cared for about 25 animals during one shift. Some of these animals were small and easy like baby quails, but some were big and high-maintenance like eagles. I worked in another facility where 15-17 dolphins were taken care of by 6-9 trainers, so staffing definitely depends on the specific animal species. It also depends on each zoo's vision and approach to behavioral enrichment and training. (The more staff we have on hand, the more time we can dedicate to the "fun stuff" like making enrichment for our animals and leading training sessions!)

Have you witnessed any grizzly animal attacks during your time in zoos (on humans or other animals)? Any one in particular stand out as the worst?

Asked by grizzly adamz almost 5 years ago

Hi Griz! Believe it or not, I actually haven't seen any grisly attacks--just occasional bites or scrapes or bruises. There are a lot less attacks than you might think, and this is partially due to the safety protocols zoos and aquariums put into place before an animal and its keeper even meet. Animals are basically separated into "fight" animals or "flight" animals. The "fight animals" (bears, most big cats, etc.) are hard-wired to stand their ground when threatened, while the "flight animals" (most hoofstock, wolves, raptors, etc.) have evolved to flee. In most zoos, keepers use "protected contact" while dealing with fight animals--and even some flight animals. This means all training must be done through some kind of barrier--like a fence or bars. This prevents most dangerous incidents from occurring. Injuries can occur even when working with flight animals, of course, so keepers must always be alert, and we must learn to "read" our animals before training can occur. If an animal seems "off" for some reason, we must trust our gut and put our personal safety first--even if it means temporarily missing a training session. (In the event we do get injured, 95% of the time it's because of an error on OUR part--not paying attention, not reading our animals correctly, being distracted, etc.) Here are my personal claims to fame: I have been bitten by a raccoon (twice!), bitten by a bottlenose dolphin, footed by a great horned owl, cornered by a Bactrian camel and stabbed in the arm by a mountain goat. (Every time, the injury was my fault!)

Have you had the pleasure of caring for koala bears? Are they as docile as they appear?

Asked by Sheba18 almost 5 years ago

I actually never have, although I have visited them at sanctuaries in Victoria. Probably one of the most adorable creatures in the world, aren't they? People I know who have worked with koalas have really enjoyed them. They tend to be fairly low-key, and they make excellent outreach animals if they are trained consistently. The public loves them, and they are super charismatic ambassadors for their species. I have been told not to be fooled by their cuteness, though! Although they are known for being sleepy and slow-moving, they have wicked claws and incredibly strong teeth. They can be food aggressive, and males can be quite dominant sometimes. Their keepers must never be lulled into carelessness by their cartoon-like appearance. Another weird fact about koalas is that males have a scent gland on their chest that oozes a smelly, oily substance. They mark their territory by rubbing this oil on tree trunks, and the smell is PUNGENT. Definitely another hazard of the job!

Are camels particularly friendly animals, or do they have a temper? What would they do if they felt scared or threatened?

Asked by CNHolmberg almost 5 years ago

Hi Charlie! You are in luck, because the "animal love of my life" happens to be a huge Bactrian camel named Knobby. (He lives at the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage, and he LOVES visitors!) I didn't know too much about camels until I started working with Knobby, but I sure became an expert quickly. I learned that camels (especially male camels) can be incredibly ornery. They can also be very dangerous, and some people die from camel attacks every year. When camels feel scared or threatened, they generally spit, stamp their feet and swing their heads. They attack by trampling and even crushing, and males grow very long incisors they use for fighting. Now, I don't want to suggest camels are blood-thirsty killers or anything. They are just HUGE, and they are incredibly powerful. Males can stand more than seven feet tall at the hump, and they can weigh more than 2,000 pounds. I would probably stereotype a camel's disposition as similar to a donkey or llama--although individual camels obviously vary as widely as humans. Camels are also very smart, and they can be trained to be great companions if you are focused and dedicated. Speaking from my experience, I began working with Knobby when he was only six months old. As he grew, he began spitting and charging and generally being terrifying. It got to the point where I didn't even feel comfortable going in his enclosure with him. (One time, he even cornered and trapped me behind a gate, and it literally crossed my mind that he may kill me.) Instead of giving up on him or reverting to the old methods of negative training, I began doing positive reinforcement training with him through his bars. After many, many, many months of hard work, I was able to not only enter his enclosure with him, but to lead him through a variety of complicated commands, including sitting on command, rolling on his side, presenting his feet for inspection, wearing a halter and letting me to sit on his back. As time passed, he grew to be my very favorite animal, and I grew to be his favorite human. He ran over to me whenever he saw me, and he cried his head off whenever I left. We had an amazing relationship (and I still miss him every single day), but I never grew complacent with him, because I knew I always had to respect his strength. Even when we were in the middle of our training sessions, I always had an escape plan in the back of my mind. And whenever he got too excited, I always cut our training sessions short. Better safe than sorry. ;)

What zoos do you consider the best in terms of providing a natural habitat for its animals?

Asked by Alex J. Cavanaugh almost 5 years ago

Hi Alex, and thanks for stopping by! There are so many amazing animal care facilities out there that it is really hard to pick. There any many standards of care that must be met in order for a facility to display exotic species. Some of the highest of these standards are set by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Facilities that are accredited by this organization are considered the very best of the best. (Look for their logo next time you visit a facility!) My personal favorite zoos and aquariums are Disney's Animal Kingdom, SeaWorld's Discovery Cove, the San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Georgia Aquarium--although there are many, many others out there that are just as amazing. In my opinion, these facilities have taken extra special pains to provide incredible enrichment and natural habitats for their animals, and they have also done an amazing job with their educational and conservation signage.